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A Little Activism, A Little Art – Our Q&A with Children’s Entertainer Bill Harley

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My daughter’s elementary school has been doing a “one book, one school” program for the past two springs. The first one was The World According to Humphry, a story about a classroom hamster, which was a great big hit. (The following summer we absolutely had to read the rest of the series…I now own more books about a pet hamster than any human being truly needs.) Then they read Charlie Bumpers vs. the Teacher of the Year; again, the students loved it. (I am looking forward to seeing what the committee comes up with this year!)

This fall, our students were privileged enough to have a visit from the Charlie Bumpers author, Bill Harley, and some of the parents, including myself, came along to see what it was all about, too. It was terrific. Bill did such a fantastic job, singing songs and telling stories, that I asked him if he would be up for being interviewed. He was kind enough to agree, although it took us a while for our schedules to mesh. When we finally got to talking, I was delighted to find out that he was just as interesting and entertaining to speak with on an adult level as he was when performing for the children. Here’s what he had to say…

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Photo Courtesy of Debbie Block

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Name: Bill Harley (above)

Date of interview: November 9, 2016

Occupation: children’s entertainer and storyteller

Home town: Born in Greenville Ohio – but spent my childhood in Indianapolis, Indiana

Current town: Seekonk, Massachusetts

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First of all, it was really great to see you interact with the kids at my daughter’s elementary school.  They had such a good time with your stories and songs, and were really engaged throughout the assembly.  Clearly, you’re a performer, songwriter, and author who really, really likes kids, and what’s more, really understands them and relates to them.  It may have helped that the kids at her school had all read your first Charlie Bumpers book the year before, so they were familiar with you.  Do you ever have trouble establishing a rapport with a group of children? 

I’ve been doing this for a long time…of course it helps if they’ve read the book, they’re already on board. But I spend most of my life going into schools performing for and talking with kids and teachers. I’ve spent my whole life with them, I know what they like. If it doesn’t work (everyone’s got off days)…if something is wrong, it’s usually the setting, or the sound is bad, they’re tired, or someone yelled at them. I am very comfortable around children. All people perceive it, but kids are particularly sensitive; they know if someone’s comfortable with them, and it all follows from that.

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You’d mentioned that your favorite novel is Don Quixote and that you’d been hoping to do a children’s version of it, but that you couldn’t find a publisher willing to take this project on.  I think that sounds really intriguing: can you tell us more about what you have in mind?

Yes, sure…I’ve just started working with an agent. The idea is that there’s a kid who’s completely addicted to a detective series called Deke Benchley. He’s a nerdy kid, he’s a middle-schooler. And he’s going to be a detective, and make the world safe, and bring justice to the world. He’s so romantic, and he’s got no perception of how things work. His name is Quentin, and he enlists a kid in his class, a sidekick, named Sam, who’s the Sancho Panza character. I just read Don Quixote again, and he’s the romantic, and there’s the practical one: Sancho Panza, who is always hoping there’s going to be a meal he’s going to get out of it. So in my book, they go to do something, Sam says it’s not a good idea but Quentin of course rushes in.

It’s been on my computer for a long time…a few publishers almost took it, but it’s back in the shop. A friend had given it to his eleven-year old son who loved it and he passed it around to all his friends like a holy tome. I know it works. Between me and kids, though, there’s a gatekeeper and I have to please the gatekeeper, too.

That sounds great! I hope it happens.

It will, eventually. Most projects I work on, writing or producing…can take years and years.

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What writers and musicians have influenced your work? 

For musicians, I grew up and came of age with singer songwriters, Steve Goodman (who wrote “City of New Orleans”), Jackson Browne, James Taylor…I grew up learning songwriting by listening. Pete Seeger was a huge influence on me. I was lucky enough to get to know him. Pete understood the cultural function of music in a community and he was interested in encouraging that. I learned a lot from him. A lot of my songs and stories are humorous but I want to create community and have kids join in with me, at schools, and at family shows.

My influences …I listen to all different kinds of music. A good thing about kids’ music is that you can explore different genres. I can do a Brazilian song, a pop song, folk song, or rock and roll.

For writing, my mom was a writer, and she wrote for kids, for My Weekly Reader as well as some stand- alone books. Writing and language were part of my childhood. I think that influenced me. There are a lot of writers I like a lot. I am reading a book now by Louise Erdrich.

She’s the one who wrote The Round House, right?

Yes, that’s the one. It’s a really powerful book.

It is.

I was just in Minneapolis, and she’s got a bookstore there. I was hoping to meet her, but she wasn’t there.

As far as children’s authors go, when I was growing up, I really liked Beverly Cleary. One of the Charlie Bumpers books won a Beverly Clearly award. I was thinking of her writing when was writing Charlie. It’s writing about the day-to-day life of a kid, nothing earthshaking or dramatic.

Also Roald Dahl; kids know he’s on their side.

And Kate DiCamillo…a great writer. She can handle a bunch of different styles: she can be funny and she can be moving. She’s got a command of language. The Tale of Despereaux, Because of Winn -Dixie, she’s great.

I loved sports, I loved Matt Christopher books as a kid. He wrote sports books for boys and kids are still reading his books.

And the illustrations of Robert McClosky, books like Homer Price. They were filled with great illustrations and detailed lined drawings.

Besides your own, what is your favorite children’s book?  And why?

I don’t know if I can pick one! When I was a kid, I read sports books. I loved The Twenty-One Balloons, a fantasy book by William Pene du Bois. I really can’t name one, so many different influences.

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Photo Courtesy of Debbie Block

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I was told that you worked on the documentary concerning the 50th anniversary of The Phantom Tollbooth (a book I am a huge fan of) and that you wrote a song for the film and have become friends with Norton Juster…what was that experience like? Do tell!

It was great! One of the producers, Hannah Jayanti, called and interviewed me, and I talked about the book. She asked if I could write a song for the movie (which is cut off in the movie – you can’t hear all of it!) but I got to know Norton better. There was a celebration the summer before last at the Smithsonian, and I came to sing the song and sit with him and talk about the book and children’s literature. He’s good friends with Eric Carle. If I go up to Vermont, I will stop up and see him on the way up. He’s great, so warm and funny. I’m glad he’s still around. He loves talking about that book! He’s not bored by it at all – he’s overjoyed that it has had such a long life.

A really good children’s book doesn’t fit into any particular mold. It has its own voice. It’s pretty sophisticated, and doesn’t talk down to kids and has a connection to people.

I actually think that the very very best children’s books are just as good for adults as they are for kids. Great books don’t discriminate by age!

I think about what books I really want to read to my kids. That’s really what they’re good for, you get to do it again. I loved The Yearling when I was in 7th grade, so I read it to my kids. And Salman Rushdie has a kids’ book about a boy whose father is a storyteller, and he loses his ability to tell stories.

I didn’t realize he’d written anything for children.

It’s a beautiful book about storytelling and language, my kids would probably all say it’s one of their favorite books. It’s called Haroun and the Sea of Stories. He wrote it for his son and it’s quite clear that’s it was written after the fatwa and it’s about losing his voice….

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You mentioned when you were visiting our school that you didn’t like it when people asked if you were going to write adult books…no one would ask a pediatrician if he or she was going to start to work on sick adults, so it can be a subtle way of devaluing work for children.  But some of my favorite books really do appeal to both children and adults.  Do you have many adult readers? 

I don’t hear from them. I do hear from parents and teachers who enjoy reading the books to their kids, and how their kids love to read them out loud. Now I read mostly to middle grades, up to about 5th grade. The young adult books with a little more sophistication really resonate with adults. Books like Hunger Games, which are for kids a little bit older. I think part of it is because I spent so many years telling stories that a storytelling voice is in a lot of my work. It’s influenced my voice and my style, so they get read out loud easily. It’s an important part.

Kids like being read to. Even kids old enough to read themselves.

We do too, Audible books is changing how we approach literature. We’ve been listening to stories for a hundred thousand years, and reading them for 300 or 400. We’re more genetically encoded to hear a story than to read one, and to speak one rather than write it. It’s part of our makeup. Reading is not a natural act. Our brains weren’t designed to do that…we’re forging our ability to read from different skills. Saying that someone has dyslexia is just like saying someone “feels sick.” It’s not specific! There are a million different things that go into reading and it’s cobbled together from different parts of our brain. Listening is a more basic experience. It’s easier to visualize when you’re hearing a story out loud. They’re two different experiences, but maybe it’s easier to hear than to read. When a book is heard, does it have as much value as a book that’s read? Information being assimilated is the important thing.

I think it’s a bit unfair that as we change curriculums and methods for teaching reading (phonics, whole language, etc.) we probably inadvertently favor or disfavor various styles of learning based on how classrooms and schools are run. Kids learn in different ways.

Hearing oral stories is absolutely essential to literacy. The more stories a kid hears and can speak, the easier literacy will come to them. If I kid comes into kindergarten without having heard stories, they’re already behind.

One book I’m working on is a book about storytelling for parents, in which I talk about the importance of oral stories and their own stories. It’s not rocket science! It’s something that we need to be reminded of.

You’re reminding me of a TED talk by a Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in which she talks about why we really need to hear different stories. When we hear all the same stories and the same types of stories, we start to fall into stereotypical thinking. It’s good for kids to hear stories about people like themselves and it’s good for them to hear other stories about other people.

I’ve been reading about brain science …stories actually create neural pathways, and when you give someone a story, it is a way of making structure, making sense of things, and more paths give them more options. Story is really about making sense of things, about giving meaning and providing context. Stories teach consequences. Kids who do not have good boundaries haven’t heard enough stories. There’s a link there …not just about reading but about how kids imagine what might be. If they haven’t heard a lot of stories, they can’t imagine what comes next, or another way out.

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Do you have any advice for aspiring writers and musicians?

Well, the thing is, you’ve got to do it every day. It’s the hardest thing for people to do, to have the discipline. Developing the practice of it. Because you have to just keep coming back to it. I go through periods where I’m good at it, and others when I’m not. Showing up every day is what develops the skill and the craft is self-perpetuating when you see yourself getting better at it. Not just creating it but also taking it in. The best musicians I know listen to so much music – all kinds of music. To be a writer, you have to read everything you can and, it’s great to find a good mentor. It’s hard to be responsible to yourself all the time. Good teachers are amazing…it’s incredible when you find them. Everyone gets 4 or 5 in their lives.

I hope they do…to make up for some of the bad ones we encounter along the way!

My younger daughter goes to a preschool which does play-based education, the idea being that children at young ages really learn through play more than through traditional classroom lessons.  I actually think that even for elementary aged kids (who of course, do need to learn math and social studies and write book reports and all) there should be more opportunities for play and learning through play.  What are your thoughts?

Honestly, especially for children, the human brain is designed to learn. If you put them in a place they will learn something, the question is what, and how do you encourage it. A lot of structures of learning don’t make much sense to me.

I spend time in schools but I’m not “official,” so I watch. A lot of education is about housing and moving children around. Much of the school day is spent serving the institution – what’s required to have 25 kids in a classroom, how do we feed 400 children, and these things have nothing to do with learning. But, I know that kids will learn to read if they hear stories and have books. Some kids have disabilities and need some more attention, but a lot of it is natural. We spend a lot of time in a school, and the mark of a good student is someone obeying rules. One function of a school is to make a citizen. There is something to be learned about not having your way, and that we have to work together…it creates a public. That has a value. Anyway, the thing about story (and teachers can’t believe how well it works) is that we remember better by a story then by memorizing lists of facts. Things don’t have to be hard and rigorous to be learning. Some things are hard, though, and there’s no way around that; it’s a lesson on life.

Song, story, and dance have gone together in cultures. We learn language through rhythm, through music. We learn culture and community through music. And plus, it’s beautiful. Singing and playing an instrument is not about being Yo Yo Ma, it’s about being human. To say it’s not important it to say it’s not important to be human.

I’m also a big proponent of music in our schools and I’m glad to say that my school district does a good job with music education; the elementary school has a strings program with an orchestra, a concert band with woodwinds and brass, and a chorus.  We also have many extra curricular musical opportunities, after school, and over the summer: youth orchestras, youth choirs, musical theater groups.  It horrifies me when these kinds of programs are cut due to budget concerns, because they are so very valuable.  I’m not a particularly talented musician but I had such great experiences as a kid, playing on the big stage in Carnegie Hall, being in marching band competitions, traveling with the band in college and going to bowl games with the football team, being in pit bands in musicals…some of my best memories and best friends are from those experiences.  What are your thoughts about music education today?

The irony is the kids who don’t get it, the disadvantaged kids have to focus on math and science and reading…and the other stuff is considered frill. And that’s not the case. There are connections formed. Then you start asking what is learning for? In schools and communities that are better off, you see more enrichment because they recognize that it’s not just about preparing someone for the marketplace, you’re raising a whole person, a whole kid. Kids who are challenged get the least of that.

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Photo Courtesy of Tom Thurston

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What’s the best or the worst thing that’s happened to you this week?

Best thing, my son Dylan, who is 29: he and his fiancé bought a house close to us in Providence and it’s just great. We are getting a new piano, and we gave him the piano my mother had when she was a girl, and that I’ve had my whole life. Dylan’s a musician too.

That’s awesome.

He was in tears. It’s a Steinway. He carved his name it in it when he was six (he thought we wouldn’t notice). His name is still there. You’re never done raising your kid. Never, ever. That was a really great thing. A passing on of a physical thing into his home, and him being happy.

Aww, that is really sweet. What’s your favorite movie and why?

I loved Local Hero…it takes place in Scotland, it’s about a developer in the oil industry, and a crisis of conscience. I love Ratatouille. It’s a great movie. And The Princess Bride is great. Those are movies we watched all together.

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What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken in life?

I think deciding to do this for a living was pretty far out there. When I decided I would be a performer for a living, we were newly married and didn’t have much money at all. I felt like I had to do it, I didn’t know any better. There was a lot of distress on both sides of the family about this, but I didn’t know it. They couldn’t bear to tell people what I was doing.

One thing that I didn’t realize was a risk (until I was already on a limb with a saw), was when I produced a recording of songs from the civil rights movement, freedom songs, like “This Little Light of Mine.” I put some of the original people who sang those songs, organizers, friends who were musicians and activists, in a retreat center for a weekend. I took a second mortgage on my house to pay for it, got a local station to record. It was a heavy experience. A lot of history there I didn’t know about. I was on a volcano for two or three days that I was hoping didn’t explode. They’d seen violence, and the history was fragile. Who should sing it? What should it mean to sing it? And the recording won all these awards in the end. We called it I’m Gonna Let it Shine. It was a big risk but it grounded me.

And recently, I’ve started this (still fledgling) organization of children’s artists speaking out about gun violence. It’s called Artists for Safe Kids. I don’t really like doing that (I’d rather sing and write), but I knew people at Newtown, and I was just at a school that had a shooting. We’re kind of crazy. I’d say we’re about 15% crazy as a human race, so I felt like I needed do to that. A lot of people do not like that. They’re looking at this question and their perceptions are very different. But I think that some simple things could change and could make a difference. Like everyone, I just want our kids – all of them – to be grow up in safety.

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Photo Courtesy of Susan Wilson

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Tell us your favorite joke.

As a storyteller, when I go to these storytelling festivals after hours, and we sit around and drink beers, we tell jokes, and it’s unbelievable but I’m not telling them here!

At some point I will have to go to a storytelling festival and sit around and drink beers and hear the jokes!

Knock knock.

Who’s there?

Linoleum!

Linoleum who?

Linoleum blownapart!

Napoleon Bonaparte? Huh…

What’s something most people don’t know about you?

I’m a beekeeper. Not a very good one, but I am.

And, I actually have a pretty good introverted side to me. I spent a lot of time by myself because of travels and things like that. I’m at ease in the public, but there’s a point when I’ve had enough. I have a pretty large quiet side to me.

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What’s your strangest phobia or superstition?

Komodo dragons, and alligators, they scare the crap out of me. Komodo dragons, they’re alligators on steroids. I’m glad they don’t live in Massachusetts. They can run after you!

That’s a very reasonable fear! Nothing irrational about that.

It’s very reasonable to me.

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What’s the best advice you’ve been given?

If you have 70 percent of what you want, that’s really good, probably as good as it’s going to get. Don’t worry about that last 30 percent. If you go after that last 30 percent, you’ll be miserable. The other thing is, especially with kids…hang in there. Show up every day. There are people who are geniuses, but hanging in is so much of it. With my Charlie Bumpers books, I never thought I’d sell them. They finally sold, and then they got unsold, when the publisher shut down the division. You pick yourself up, try again. And, if you do this you’ll get most of what you need.

Fail again. Fail better. So, if you could go back and time and do one thing over, what would it be?

I think I would have practiced my music more when I was younger, it’s harder to do it when you’re older, you get busy. I think I was afraid to commit myself. I should have committed a little earlier.   I have lived an incredibly blessed life, I get to make things up for a living, hang out with people, and make them laugh. I have that 30 percent missing, but I know how lucky I am. Maybe I’d do a little more trouble-making.

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Last but not least…is there anything you’d like to pitch, promote, or discuss?

Yes, Artists for Safe Kids. It’s still little and we’re trying to figure it out. I am more interested in writing a song, but I’ll do that too. A little activism, and a little art. For the art part, I’m pretty happy with my newest Charlie Bumpers book about his miserable soccer team…Charlie Bumpers vs. The Puny Pirates.

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Lead-In Image Courtesy of Tom Thurston

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Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.

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Laura can be contacted at laura@newswhistle.com

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Other Q&As by Laura LaVelle

Alexi Auld, author

* Simeon Bankoff, Executive Director, Historic Districts Council

* Eric Bennett, author

Alexander Campos, Executive Director, Center for Book Arts

* Mark Cheever, Friends of Hudson River Park

* Yvonne Chu, Kimera Design

*Sarah Cox, Write A House

* Betsy Crapps, founder of Mom Prom

* Margaret Dorsey, anthropologist

* Mamady Doumbouya, Jonathan Halloran, & Robert Hornsby, founders of American Homebuilders of West Africa

Kinsey Dyckman, Board Member, Dyckman Farmhouse Museum

Rhonda Eleish & Edie van Breems, interior designers

* Alex Gruhin, co-founder of Nightcap Riot

Leslie Green Guilbault, artist, potter

* Garnet Heraman, brand strategist for Karina Dresses, serial entrepreneur

* Meredith Sorin Horsford, Executive Director, Dyckman Farmhouse Museum

* Margaret Pritchard Houston, author and youth worker

* Camilla Huey, artist, designer

*Dr. Brett Jarrell & Dr. Walter Neto, founders of Biovita

* Beth Johnson, Townsend Press editor

Mahanth Joishy, founder of United States – India Monitor

* Alexandra Kennedy,  Executive Director, Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art

Jim Knable, playwright and musician

* Jonathan Kuhn, Director of Art & Antiquities for NYC Parks Department

* Elizabeth Larison, Director of Programs for apexart

* Ann Lawrence, Co-Founder of Pink51

* Jessica Lee, dancer, Sable Project Administrator

* Najaam Lee, artist and sickle cell advocate

*Anthony Monaghan, documentary filmmaker

*Ellie Montazeri, Tunisian towel manufacturer

* Heather-Marie Montilla, Executive Director, Pequot Library

* Yurika Nakazono, rainwear designer, Terra New York

* Jibrail Nor, drummer

* Alice Quinn, Executive Director, Poetry Society of America

* Ryan Ringholz, children’s shoe designer, Plae Shoes

* Alanna Rutherford, Board Member, Andrew Glover Youth Program

* Deborah Ryan & Frank Vagnone, Historic House Anarchists

* Lawrence Schwartzwald, photographer

* Peter Sís, writer and illustrator

* Patrick Smith, author and pilot

* Juliet Sorensen, law professor

* Jeffrey Sumber, psychotherapist and author

* Rich Tafel, life coach and Swedenborgian minister

*Jonathan Todres, law professor

* Andra Tomsa, creator of SPARE app

* Maggie Topkis, mystery fiction publisher

* Carol Ward, Executive Director, Morris-Jumel Mansion

* Adamu Waziri, creator of children’s television program Bino and Fino

Ekow Yankah, law professor